Dante – Purgatorio/Purgatory from the Divine Comedy, 28-30

Canto 28

  • Dante was eager to explore the sacred wood. He left the cliff, walked across the fields where even the soil smelled nice. The breeze blew across his forehead & he walked towards the shady part, where little birds sang on top of the trees. Dante was so far into the woods that he couldn’t see where he’d come in. He ran into a stream, with the clearest water he’d ever seen before. It ran off into the shade of the forest. He stood looking at what he could see on the other side. Amidst all the flowery branches, he could see a lady picking flowers.
    • Dante called out to her, asking her to come & see him. He wanted to know what she was singing. She reminded him of Proserpine who was lost by her mother, Ceres, near a spring. The lady turned to him, looked downwards & approached him while continuing to sing. When she arrived at the bank of the other side, she looked up at him, looking very lovely. She smiled while continuing to gather flowers on the other side. While it was only 3 paces between them, it seemed like several miles.
      • The lady spoke: “You must be new here. My smiling in this place, close to the cradle of the human race, may make you wonder. But the Psalm, ‘Delectsi’ would clue you in. If you want to know more, feel free to ask anything.”
      • Dante was confused by the music, the water & the forest. The lady said she’d explain & it would clear up all the confusion. The highest good is making man good & putting him here as his eternal resting place. Man didn’t stay here long because of sin. Sin changed him from being happy & harmless to needing to labor & suffer in pain. This mountain moved upward to heaven so that the storms, earthquakes & heat that pervaded the earth so that it wouldn’t hurt man. & then it was kept away from man. The breeze here was not caused by any turmoil below, as it is not an earthly wind. Every tree generated a different virtue, which was carried by the wind down to the Earth.
        • The lady spoke further: “The water in the river doesn’t come from a spring like on Earth, but flows from a fountain that regains every drop, all out of God’s will. On this side of the River, all of man’s sin is blotted from memory. On that side, memory all good deeds is restored. This side – the Lethe, that side – the Eunoë. This must be tasted first, the other second. It’s better than any other taste. & even though your curiosity is largely satisfied, I’ll add a little more to the explanation. In the old days, men would sing about the Golden Age & its happy state. Here the root of man was innocent. Here all fruits & nectars are found”.
        • Dante turned around towards the poets & saw them smiling to hear all that. Dante turned back towards the lady.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • The Earthly Paradise: The scenery of Dante’s Earthly Paradise is said to have been taken from the Pineta (pine-wood) of Classe (Chiassi), near Ravenna on the Adriatic, where the last cantos of the Purgatory were written. In so far as poets “take” their ideal scenery from any actual place, this is doubtless true; but it does not fully explain Dante’s insistence on speaking always of “the sacred Forest”, “The ancient Forest”, & never employing the more usual & traditional image of a garden. We can scarcely doubt that he is deliberately making a parallel & contrast with the “dark Wood”, the “rough & stubborn Forest”, from which he set out upon his journey (Hell, 1).
    • In the allegory, the Earthly Paradise is the state of innocence. It is from here that Man, if he had never fallen, would have set out upon his journey to the Celestial Paradise which is the ultimate destination but because of sin, his setting-out is from that other Forest which is the degraded & horrifying parody of this one. His whole journey through Hell & Purgatory is thus a return journey in search of his true starting place – the return to original innocence. Natural innocence is not an end in itself, but the necessary condition of beginning: it was never intended that unfallen Adam should remain static, but that he should progress from natural to supernatural perfection. I think it is therefore a mistake to suppose, as many have done, that Dante’s Earthly Paradise stands for the perfect Empire, the perfection of the Active Life, the “felicity of this life”, or even for the perfection of the Natural Life, except in the sense that it represents the recovery of that original perfection of human nature which was impaired by the Fall. Once we remember that Eden is, & was always meant to be, a starting place & not a stopping place, we shall have little difficulty in finding a consistent & intelligible significance for the allegory.
  • The Lady: The literal & allegorical identity of this delightful Lady is perhaps the most tantalizing problem in the Comedy. Her name – as we are casually informed in the final canto – is Matilda; & from the fact that she has a name we are entitled to infer that she is no abstraction, but a personality as real & human as Beatrice herself. Beyond this, so far as her literal identity is concerned, all is conjecture.
    • Much more important is her allegorical significance. The fact that she is “discovered” picking flowers, like the Leah of Dante’s dream (Purgatory, 27), assures us that she is in some way a type of the Active Life; & some commentators have seen in her the one permanent resident” of the Earthly Paradise, & supposed her to be the image of Empire, Philosophy, or Natural Perfection. There is, however, no reason to assume that her presence in the place is permanent: what is certain is that she forms part of Beatrice’s retinue; & her obvious function is to prepare Dante for his meeting with Beatrice. Accepting this for the moment, we will consider her again in the Images of Canto 33.

Canto 29

  • The Lady continued singing, “Beati quorum tecta sun peccata” (Blessed are those whose sins are forgiven). She continued moving along & Dante followed her. She told him to look & listen. There was a song in the air which made Dante wonder why Adam & Eve would ever do anything to have to leave this place. Dante would have been happy with the place as it was & with the lady’s words as they were. He looked up to see a light shine into the forest & it got brighter & brighter. He was curious as to what it was. The air turned as bright as a fire under the tree’s branches & heard the sweet song of a choir.
    • Dante invoked the muses: “It I ever had to endure cold, hunger or vigil for them, now was his time to be rewarded. He needed help to describe what he saw.
      • He saw 7 golden trees but as distance can play tricks on the eyes, he saw that they were 7 candlesticks [As in the Corpus Christi mass, symbolizing the 7 gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety & fear of the Lord]. There was “Hosannah” being sung out. It was all a part of an elaborate pageant/procession blazing with the fire brighter than a full moon. The lights moved forwards leaving streams of light in the air, appearing as banners, each in one color of the rainbow. The fires moved away streaking across in the air.
      • Dante turned to Virgil for help but his face seemed to be just as bewildered as his. So Dante turned back to watch the spectacle.
    • The lady told him not to focus just on the lights. He was to watch for what else came next to them.
      • Then out came 24 elders (dressed in the whitest whites, so bright that they shined off the water & on to Dante’s face) walking 2 by 2 [Symbolizing the 24 books of the Old Testament], crowned with lilies [righteousness]. They sang out “Blessed among the daughters of Adam’s line are you & blessed be thy beauties forever.” When the flowers & herbs fell from their heads, Dante saw 4 creatures follow [4 Beasts of the Apocalypse], each crowned with green foliage, each with 6 wings with plumage with eyes on them.
      • Then there was a chariot [The Holy Host] wheeled out being pulled by a Gryphon [Representing the 2 Hypostatic natures of Christ: half-eagle (divine bird, incorruptible), half-animal (animal = human)]. He stretched out his gold & red wings [red=blood, gold=flesh] between the banners without disturbing them. The chariot was finer than anything in all of Rome.
      • Then came out 3 ladies dancing in a ring [3 Theological virtues] – one in white [Faith], one in green [Hope] & one in red [Charity]. Following them were 4 ladies also dancing in a ring, all wearing purple [4 Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Justice, Temperance & Fortitude]. The leader of this group had an eye in her forehead [representing the Eastern 3rd eye].
      • Then out came 2 men dressed differently. One was dressed like an ancient doctor [Luke] & the other was wearing a sword, shard & glittering [Paul]. Next came 4 humble-looking men [Peter, James, John & Jude] & behind them was an old man walking around in a trace [John the Divine]. All 7 of these men were dressed like the 1st 24 but were wearing red roses [love of the Gospel], not lilies [righteousness of Law].
      • Then the chariot pulled in front of Dante, thunder sounded & the procession stopped.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • The Beatrician Pageants: Readers who have followed with interest Dante’s use of natural, as opposed to conventional, symbols for the purpose of his allegory, now have an opportunity to see what he could, if he thought fit, do with the other method, & how he uses the one as a contrast & foil to the other. For the great focal point of the Comedy – the reunion of Dante with Beatrice – is deliberately set, as though upon a stage, between 2 great pageants or masques, in which the characters are not symbolic personages but allegorical personifications in the traditional manner, embodying abstract ideas. When I say “masques”, I mean exactly that. I do not mean that Dante has suddenly changed his convention & introduce into his narrative a whole collection of abstractions who mingle with his “real” people on equal terms. I mean that the Angels & Intelligences whom he mentions in the course of these concluding cantos are, in the most literal sense, masquers, who represent before him a contrived pageant, in the contemporary fashion, for his personal instruction & to honor of Beatrice & all she stands for. The persons are still actual exist beings, as all actors are existent beings; but they are actors, & they are presenting a show.
    • Those who complain of the “frigid allegorical conceits” of these masques have not, I think, fully grasped Dante’s intention. The contrast of style is carefully contrived for its purpose; just as, in Hamlet, the style of the “play-within-the-play” is made quite different from that of the play itself, & much more rigidly conventional. The poet’s design is to frame between these 2 formal spectacles the moving & intensely personal interview between Beatrice & her lover, & so give it enhanced emphasis & relief.
    • Between them, the 2 Masques display the history of the Church (1) up to & including the Incarnation, & (2) from the days of the Apostles to the time of writing. The first is primarily doctrinal; the second, historical & political.
  • The First Masque: The Pageant of the Sacrament: I have called it so because this description agrees best with its formal presentation, but what it shows is something still greater: the whole revelation of the indwelling of Christ in His creation through the union of His 2 natures, Divine & Human (technically known as the “Hypostatic Union”). Of this union, the Sacrament of the Altar is at once the divinely ordained symbol, & the means by which Christians participate in that union; & in the Masque, Beatrice – Dante’s own particular “God-bearing image” – plays the part of the Sacrament. It is at this point that masque & reality become inextricably welded into a single dominating Image; for the historical Beatrice is, for Dante, what she represents, just as, after a higher & universal manner, the Sacrament is what it represents, & – after a manner more absolute still – Christ is what He represents.

Canto 30

  • The procession had stopped & the Old Testament men approached the chariot. One of them sang out “Veni, sponsa de Lebano” (Come, Bride of Lebanon) 3 times & then the rest joined in. The divine chariot rose in the air. All of them proclaimed “Benedictus qui venis” (Blessed are you who come), threw their flowers up in the air & cried out: “Manibus O date lilia plenis” (Oh, give lilies with full hands). The flowers rained down on everything & everyone.
    • Then a lady dressed in a green gown wearing an alive crown approached Dante. Her presence had been a distant memory still stirring in him but he instantly recognized her. He felt like a child again. Dante turned to Virgil to tell him that there wasn’t a drop of blood not throbbing in his veins but Virgil was gone. He started to tear up at the thought of Virgil. The new lady told him not to cry about Virgil. There was more to come.
    • Dante gazed at the woman, who looked as regal & divine as could be. She told him she was Beatrice. He wasn’t supposed to be there if he was going to cry, mean was meant to be happy there. Beatrice stopped & said “In te Domine, spervi” (In you, Lord, I put my trust) but didn’t finish the verse. Dante froze. The others asked Beatrice, “Lady, why are you shaming him?”
    • Beatrice told them: “You’re removed from the day & night of the mountain – & all the purgation that goes on in Purgatory. Perhaps I should put it in a way that Dante can understand so his grief & guilt can be measured together. The Heavens gave him talent enough to write his “Vita Nuova” but he was a big-time sinner. I looked up to him in my youth but in my adulthood, he forsook me & made friends elsewhere. When I exchanged my flesh for spirit, I was able to grow in beauty & virtue but his heart turned away from me. He looked for the false phantoms of good which promise joy but never give any. I tired to bring him over to the good side but he ignored me & fell so low that only showing him the lost souls in Hell could bring him back. I asked Virgil to do the job. It would be wrong to let him pass the River Lethe without him shedding repentant tears”.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • The Figure of Beatrice: If, throughout the whole course of the poem, our minds had not been insistently prepared for the coming of Beatrice, the whole symbolism of the Masque, & particularly the chanting of the Benedictus, would lead us to expect the appearance upon the car of the Holy Host itself. & both expectations are quite right. What appears is indeed Beatrice, as we had been led to suppose: the unmistakable Beatrice whom Dante had loved in Florence. But she is also, in the allegory of the Masque, the Image of the Host. In this august & moving moment, Dante brings together all the “significations” of Beatrice, showing her as the particular type & figure of that whole sacramental principle of which the Host Itself is the greater Image. Bearing in mind the 4 levels at which Dante meant his poem to be interpreted, we see that she is here:
    • (1) Literally: the Florentine woman whom Dante loved.
    • (2) Morally (i.e. as regards the way of salvation of the individual soul): the type of whatever is, for each of us, the “God-bearing image” which manifests the glory of God in His creation, & becomes a personal sacramental experience.
    • (3) Historically (i.e. in the world of human society): the Sacrament of the Altar. (& those who say that Beatrice here represents the Church are not wrong: for Dante has in mind that ancient & apostolic conception of the Eucharist which looks upon it, not only as the commemoration of God’s single act in time, but as the perpetual presentation to God in Christ of Christ’s true Body the Church – the verum corpus – which is made in the offertory of the bread & wine; so that, as St. Augustine says, “being joined to His Body & made His members, we may be what we received”.)
    • (4) Mystically (i.e. as regards the way of the soul’s union with God): the whole principle of Affirmation, whereby that union is effected in & through all the images.
    • Having said thus much, we may admire the poetic tact with which Dante leaves the whole weight of this allegorical structure to be carried on the framework of the Masque, so that he is free to conduct the interview between Dante & Beatrice throughout in those human & personal terms which make the story dramatically effective.


Author: knowit68

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